Yes, I Suck

This weekend my daughter said, Kids at school think I’m dirt! No one likes me. I’m too short, I don’t have the right clothes, my voice is too high…”

Heartbreaking stuff. She’s an 8-year-old with shitty self-esteem.

We had a long talk about positive self talk, about how you’ve got to believe deep down inside that you are good, that you are beautiful and smart and worthy and lovable no matter what people say. My daughter listened, but she looked unconvinced.

I told her that every time she goes to the bathroom and looks in the mirror as she washes her hands to think: I am smart. I am beautiful.

But then this morning I came across John Cloud’s fascinating article in the online archives of Time Magazine Health: Yes, I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking. The article is about self-esteem, self-judgment as well as positive and negative thinking. It includes a study that supports “newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.”

Hmmm. Perhaps I just need to listen to my daughter’s negative self-talk and try not to convince her otherwise?

All of this got me thinking about, well, the way I think about myself. What am I modeling for my daughter?

Do I think of myself as smart? Do I think of myself as beautiful?

The answer is: No. I do not.

My internal dialog runs the gamut of Holy shit did you really just say that? If I just lost 5 pounds…This writing is total crap! My hair looks like a squirrel died on my head. I can’t believe I smell this way…

My brain (or personality?) choses to chew on the negative. I have TMJ of the brain.

I suspect it’s not just me who feels this way. There are so many ways media cuts a woman’s psyche down in order to get her to buy a whole bunch of stuff. The advertising promises that we will Feel amazing! Look better! 

When it comes to my friends and family, I am a glass half full type of person. But when it comes to myself, not so much.

Photo-illustration by Reena de la Rosa for TIME

I grew up in an interesting home. My mother was a cheerleader, but had subtle ways of making me feel like I was a work in progress. In retrospect, sending a slightly chubby 12-year-old to Weight Watchers with a neighbor seems a questionable thing for a mother to do.

My father was a negative Nelly. He had very old school notions about raising a girl. I was supposed to be pretty and thin. When I’d reach across the table to take a second helping of chicken at dinner he’d point to his wedding ring and shake his head implying that if I ate more food I’d never get married. He used to say that my brother would get the M.B.A. and I would get the MRS.

I never saw my mom’s natural hair color (which was, I think, brunette). She always, always had blonde hair out of a bottle. And she never left the house without a full face of make-up. She was almost always trying out a new diet when I was a kid.

The message?

You are not okay as you are.

My mom never said a negative word to me about my appearance. She always told me I was beautiful, even as she permed my 7-year-old hair and took me on countless shopping trips for better clothes. Hmmmm.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want my daughter or sons to feel that they suck.  But I also need to give them the space to talk about their negative feelings while modeling positive self-esteem.

Hello, therapist? It’s Jen. I need a little help, please.

How do you feel about yourself? What messages are you giving your kids through example? 

 

Everything Possible

I am linking up this post, which is one of my favorites, with Alison of Mama Wants This! and Ado of The Momalog to help Alison celebrate the 1st anniversary of her wonderful blog. I chose this post because, simply, I love my son and think there are probably other parents who can relate to how I feel about this particular kid.

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The other night my son and I were sitting on the sofa together, his dark blond head against my chest, our fingers intertwined. As I do every day, I try to get him to talk to me about his day, about his friends, about whatever is going on in his imagination. Usually I have to wrestle and tickle him until he’s tired out and flopped on the sofa, feet up where his head should be, head tilted upside down over the side like a worn out puppy to get him to talk.

It’s funny, if you’d asked me five years ago who I would worry most about, I would’ve said my daughter’s name in a heartbeat. But as she’s gotten a bit older I’ve learned that a little piss & vinegar and dogged determination will take a kid with challenges a long way. So it is not my daughter I lay awake at night thinking about. It’s my son.

It is hard to get my boy to talk. If you know him well, his eyes will tell you everything you need to know. I’ve always said he was an old soul with those big dark brown eyes and sweet, thoughtful disposition. From across the room you can tell if he’s happy or sad, worried or confused just by looking at his eyes. But this kid holds a lot in, and I want him to learn to put his feelings into words.

Ever since he was really little, my son was different from the other little boys we hung out with in playgroups and preschool. He didn’t like to play with cars or army men, GI Joe or pretend guns. He was bookish, enjoyed puzzles and cracking plastic eggs on the lip of a tiny pan in the small wooden kitchen at school.

When other boys were joining soccer teams or going to basketball camp, my son stood back, preferring to play with the girls (or some of the quieter boys). So when my son was resting his head against me the other night and I asked him who he played with a recess that day, it didn’t come as a surprise that he said a bunch of girls’ names.

I asked if he still played with any of the boys he used to mention on occasion. He said, Not really. I’m different from them. Twisting my thumb gently, he buried his head against my shoulder. That’s okay, I said. I pretend like I’m friends with the boys so they won’t notice, he said softy. And then, Sometimes I like girly things. His breath warmed my chest as he waited for my response. There are plenty of guys who like girly things. There are men who knit, who sew, cook, play piano, go shopping…

And before I knew it he had rolled off the couch and started flopping around on the floor like a goofball while making silly kid noises. As he tried to tickle me with his feet I said, You just be yourself and be proud of who you are because you are so loved. I think you are the absolute greatest thing since chicken nuggets.

But here, again, my heat broke a little. Be yourself and be proud of who you are is not easy in a world that is filled with fear and hatred, with closed minds and judgmental hearts. Here is a kid who already knows, instinctively, to fake it around other boys. To deny who he is so he’ll fit in. To deny who he is so he won’t get bullied or hurt.

Even when I gave him a catalog to look through for holiday gift ideas, I saw him take his time and really pour over the pages of girl’s toys. I told him he could pick anything, anything at all. Even a doll, or Polly Pocket, or a kitchen gadget, it didn’t matter. I just wanted him to have what would make him happy. But he fell back on his default choice even though I knew it wasn’t super exciting to him. I wanted so badly to go to ToysRUs and fill up the cart with all of those pink things that caught his eye and put them in his room, but I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable either.

So I ask, how do I best support my son? How do I help him to accept who he is and not feel shame? I don’t know if he’s gay or straight. It doesn’t matter to me either way. I just want to keep him strong and help protect him from the challenges he may face in the future by parenting him in the best way possible now.

There is no simple way to wrap up this post. I would love comments, and if you know someone who might have helpful thoughts, please feel free to share this with him or her.

Also, wanted to share this beautiful song called Everything Possible. Great lyrics.

Please Don’t Be A Mean Girl

Last night at bedtime I climbed into my daughter’s bed for our evening “chat.” I love this ritual. We lay on our sides facing each other under the pink and green flowered quilt that my mom gave Ruby when we bought her a “big girl bed.” Hanging above us is a gently swaying bejeweled purple butterfly and on the wall is a painting of four colorful fairies dancing in a meadow that was painted by my mom.

Bedtime is the sweet part of the day when Ruby and I finally get to be alone, and the moment when I get the real scoop on what’s happening in her life at school. When Ruby is sleepy and her brothers aren’t competing for my attention, she drops her guard and offers me brief glimpses into her rich imaginary world, her friendships, and her feelings about our family.

Last night, as Ruby told me about what she did at recess that day, my heart hurt a little. She described hanging out with her best buddy at school and went on to tell me about a joke they played on another girl. I asked her why they did this and she said, Well, that girl follows us around and is really annoying. We, like, need our space.

This, coming from a girl who struggles in fit in, who often feels like a dork and wants so desperately to be friends with the girl she deems most popular. I asked her how it would make her feel if two girls played a joke on her, if they excluded her and told secrets behind her back. I wouldn’t like that at all, she said. People are jerks to me all the time. They think I’m a baby and like to carry me around because I’m so short. I hate being so short! And I hate my hair. I wish I had blonde hair! And I need pierced ears! I am a geek. No one ever wants to be my friend.”

Before I knew it, Ruby’s big brown eyes were filled with tears. She angrily wiped at her wet cheeks and buried her face deep in her pink pillow. Sweet girl, I said, I know it’s hard, but you have to try to give to people what you want to experience in return. The kinder you are to people, the kinder they will be to you. I believed what I was saying, but at the same time I realized that it was not the whole truth. The truth is that there will always be mean girls, mean boys, mean people. It is the unfortunate nature of things.

So I told her that there will always be jerks, and even the most popular kids feel terrible about themselves sometimes. And I reminded her about the little girl she is most connected to, another child who has social challenges, whom she loves so ardently it often brings me to tears. (If only they were in school together!) I reminded her that no matter what, that very special girl will always, always be her biggest ally and dearest friend.

Sometimes it still comes as a shock that my kids have this other complex life happening outside the safety of our home, and that they are engaging with the world as unique, independent people who have gifts, strengths and frailties. It is at these moments that I pray all of the encouragement we give them to be polite, to be thoughtful and kind, to be smart, empathetic and fun comes to fruition.

It is at these times that, honestly, I feel the fear and anxiety that can come with the enormity of raising children. How do I teach this girl of mine, who is so sensitive, who doesn’t really understand the social language of children, who just wants to fit in, to be strong of heart and self? How do I teach my children to not only be good people, but to be their best selves?

As I stood outside in the cold this morning waiting at the bus stop with my kids, I realized that I don’t have the answers to these questions. I may never have the answer. The only thing I have is love. So I will love this girl, and I will love her brothers, and hope that for now that is enough.

You Are Not As Cool As You Think You Are or Dork Life

My kids are dorks. My son would much rather have a conversation about the function of the Golgi apparatus or draw a size comparison of things in the nanoworld than play soccer or Mario Kart. My daughter, is, well, beautifully odd. She punctuates her sentences in little leaps of excitement. She worries about how I will drive if I find myself on a collapsing bridge. She is passionate about seals.

My kids come by their dorkiness naturally. I am a nerd. My husband is a geek. For instance, the thing that has been on my mind for the last twenty-four hours is how cool the library is. I even downloaded an awesome iPhone app for it. I’ve reserved way too many books.

My husband is a dork too. He memorizes baseball statistics. He geeks out on about four fantasy sports teams. He has a propensity for wearing bucket hats. (His favorite is from a restaurant on Long Beach Island called Chicken or the Egg–I’m sure you can imagine the graphic on it.) He will yell out, “Chicken FINGER!” at random times.

In the last year my daughter has become painfully aware of her uniqueness, of her own awkwardness, of the social hierarchy that exists in the world of elementary education. My daughter has Asperger Syndrome. It is hard to explain to her how this makes her incredibly interesting, smart, and creative while also frequently lost in the maze of the social world.

The other day my daughter asked me what a nerd is. I wasn’t sure how to answer her. Like me? Like you? Someone who is totally unique and cool? Someone people are afraid to hang out with? Someone who is brave enough to be unique? Someone whose brain works differently? There is nothing at this point that makes her feel better about her gifts and challenges. I wish there was an “It Gets Better” project for kids with Asperger Syndrome. Or for kids who are just dorky.

I remember feeling like an outcast in elementary school, and that was without having a diagnosis. I was in a clique called The Group, a bunch of girls who were, essentially, band geeks. Everyone in the The Group had matching t-shirts that had the girl’s name on one sleeve and the instrument she played on the other. Jennifer. Violin. I think there was a rainbow on the front. Can you get geekier than that?

Even in a group as nerdy as The Group there was a hierarchy. There was the tall, thin blonde girl who was the outspoken, intimidating leader. There was the petite, angel-faced girl who all the boys were in love with and all the girls revered. There was the brainy, intellectual girl who got amazing grades. Apparently at some point The Group decided I was not the right fit.

I was short, fluffy, Jewish, shy. I had to go to Hebrew School on the days The Group girls played soccer or practiced ballet or went to Cotillion. Before long I was ousted from The Group. There were tears. Anger. Humiliation. Confusion. But eventually I found my way and made new friends. Best friends who are still in my life. Now, because of those best friends, I am thankful that The Group booted me.

As an adult, I can appreciate my unique brand of dorkiness. Because of it I write poetry, I have a diverse group of friends, I obsess about the library, I married a wonderful, weird, special person, I have tattoos. I admire my children and look forward to what interesting lives they will lead. I just wish that I could spare them the pain of feeling different in that I’m the only one in the world who feels this way way. I know that this is not a unique story. I invite readers to share their own It Gets Better (dork version) experience. Let’s help kids embrace their inner nerd. Geeks of the world unite!